Kirkby Lonsdale is a small town in southern Cumbria, built on the west bank of the River Lune. Its most well known feature is Devil’s Bridge, a impressive, three-arched stone bridge likely dating from the 12th or 13th century. It is one of the most popular destinations for weekend motorcycle riders in the North West, and on warm summer days the small car park is filled with upwards of 100 motorbikes. Now designated as a protected ancient monument by Historic England, the bridge’s grand design and vast age led to a well-known origin tale that gave the bridge the name that has endured to the present day.
As the legend goes, an elderly farmer’s wife set out to bring in her cattle for the day, only to find that one of the herd had strayed to the far side of the river. Since its crossing that morning, the river had swelled with recent rains and was impassable to the old woman. As her attempts to coax the animal back across the water became increasingly desperate, a figure appeared before her. It was the devil himself, and he offered the woman a bargain to allow the return of her cow; he would construct a bridge to allow her to retrieve it, but only on the condition that he would claim the first living thing that crossed the bridge as his own. The devil was well aware that the woman’s husband was on his way home from market, and it was his intention to claim the man’s soul.
The woman agreed to the bargain, and the devil constructed the grand stone bridge with his own hands. Marks said to be his handprints can still be seen on one of the foundation stones at the centre of the bridge when the river is low enough.
On completion of the bridge, the old woman saw her husband approaching and realised the devil’s intention. Calling her dog to her, she stooped and picked up a stone, casting it across the bridge. Rushing across the bridge to retrieve it, the dog became the first living thing to cross the devil’s bridge, robbing him off his prize. Furious at being foiled, the devil let out a prolonged scream of rage before casting himself from the side of the bridge, disappearing in a cloud of brimstone and he hit the water.
While the Devil’s Bridge is now better known as a popular destination for day trippers, it is not without its own modern morbid tale. The middle of the bridge has become a popular location for tombstoning, with young visitors following the devil’s descent down to the water below by jumping from the bridge. In reality, the rocky banks and uneven riverbed make this a dangerous practice, with only a small margin for error on landing. Despite a growing toll of injuries amongst jumpers, including at least two incidents that resulted in broken backs and the required attendance of the Air Ambulance, jumping from the bridge continued to grow in popularity during the early 2000s.
This eventually culminated in the death of a 22-year old from Manchester in 2012 after he jumped from the bridge and failed to resurface. Despite the death the practice continues, although illegal and the bridge featuring prominent signs at either end warning of the dangers of jumping.